Hollywoodland

Outside of the novelty of seeing Ben Affleck assaying a dramatic role, there isn’t much in Hollywoodland to keep us hooked. Paul Bernbaum aspires to a Chinatown or L.A. Confidential sort of moral bleakness as he intertwines two storylines, both of them set in sunny 1950s Los Angeles and through which he paints the now overly familiar portrait of a city as much enamoured with as ruined by the culture of glamour festering at its core. Bernbaum’s script focuses a pair of disparate denizens — the first is Louis Simo (Adrie Brody), a down-and-out private detective who, for lack of decent work, is reduced to snooping into the windows of cuckolding women; the other is the true-to-life George Reeves (George Reeves), a bland but sincere actor who can’t, for all his efforts, step out of the shadow of Superman, the role he played in the popular ’50s TV series that made him a bonafide star, albeit one of a lower caliber than his big-screen contemporaries. In the late 50s, dissatisfied and depressed with his career prospects, Reeves committed suicide.

The main and persistant problem in Hollywoodland is that it doesn’t tell us anything new or interesting, either about human beings or the institutions they create — in this case, entertainment and law enforcement. It treads no ground that better and bolder noirs of the past fifty years — Sunset Blvd., Day of the Locust and the aforementioned pair of crime films, to name only a few — have not already staked out. Hollywoodland is also at a disadvantage in that Reeves’ death, the players and circumstances surrounding it, aren’t compelling enough to warrant a full-blown investigative murder mystery. The result is a labored and tepid affair, tastefully filmed and performed but offering nothing of lasting value.

Reeves’ death spurs Hollywoodland’s plot, which shifts between Simo and flashbacks to Reeves’ life and career in the years before his demise. Unconvinced by the LAPD’s ruling that Reeves killed himself, Reeves’ mother hires Simo to investigate further, to snoop under the rocks of Reeves’ private and professional relationships for anything suspicious enough to reopen the case. Out of financial necessity, Simo looks up all the usual suspects: Reeves’ last girlfriend (Robin Tunney), a standard-issue golddigger; and Eddie Mannix, the manipulative head of MGM Studios (played with typical venomousness by Bob Hoskins) whose wife, Toni (Diane Lane), was Reeves longtime mistress. When Simo isn’t following his leads — none of which would pass muster for originality or insight in the lowest grade Chandler mystery — he’s tending to his equally dull domestic problem of trying to mend fences with his estranged son and ex-wife (Molly Parker). What’s somewhat shocking is that nothing that transpires among any of these players comes as a surprise. The mystery here feels like a paint-by-numbers detective-story exercise for Bernbaum, which director Allen Coulter wishes to honor with a pictorial style lifted wholesale from L.A. Confidential.

The movie stands on its feet only during scenes with Affleck, an actor of limited range, to be sure. Yet, in his Hollywoodland performance, Affleck seemingly feels a kinship with Reeves. In his demeanor, we sense a pride tempered by self-embarrassment, a kind of insecurity stemming from Reeves’ private knowledge that he’s not destined for the glorious heights he longs for, either because he’s not fated to or his talents just aren’t up to it. Affleck’s performance may be the bravest thing about an otherwise toothless film, because he isn’t afraid to play (and thereby be associated with) the washed-up Reeves, suffering more than his share of shame and indignity.

Other than that, Coulter looks to Brody and Lane to prop up this slouching material. Lane’s Toni makes a rather unremarkable mistress, an older woman looking to fiercely control her younger stud, and predictably destroyed when jilted by the same. Brody seems out of sorts here, vascillating between playing the slumming private-eye and the slumming father. The problem with the former, once again, is that he’s chasing a dud of a detective case, one without the labyrinthine network of surprises and reversals that make for memorable mysteries. Simo’s journey is overly simplistic and the gallery of characters he crosses paths with all amount to stock noir types, nothing more. As for Simo’s father act, it amounts to a lot of husband-wife and father-son sulking and brooding; Bernbaum’s script gives the actor nothing to work with, so Brody’s left on his own, to make like a lesser Dustin Hoffman in a noir-inflected, lesser rendition of Kramer vs. Kramer.

Grade: C

Directed by: Allen Coulter
Written by: Paul Bernbaum
Cast: Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Lois Smith, Larry Cedar, Brad William Henke, Dash Mihok, Molly Parker, Kathleen Robertson

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